"You have to come out sometime, you know."
I sat up with a start, blinking. Must have fallen asleep, I guess.
Not that it mattered a bit, but I was still startled by the sight
of all the police cruisers, TV crews, and onlookers milling around
in the floodlit night. The noise they all made was a dull murmur;
at 3 AM, everybody was starting to get a little tired and sleepy.
I recognized some of the faces, but others had come and gone since
the last time I checked.
Sharpe was still there, however. He still looked pretty much in
control of his surroundings, sitting there in a lawn chair outside
the bubble, reminding me that I couldn't stay in the bubble forever.
I yawned, scratched, and blinked stupidly at him until his face
swam into focus. He was wrong, of course, but I wasn't about to tell
him that. He was, I think, the only one in the whole crowd who hadn't
lost his mind. He waited until he knew I had shaken the cobwebs out
of my brain, then lifted a coffee mug in my direction as if he were
toasting my health.
I picked up my Thermos of coffee.
After a few minutes of intense concentration, I got enough brain cells
cooperating with my hands to get the lid off and pour a cup of my own.
Triumphantly, I raised my mug at Sharpe, returning the gesture.
With a few swallows of coffee headed down, I took more of an interest
in my surroundings. As I goaded my brain into some sense of normal
operation, I noticed that there were quite a few more patrol cars
and news crews on the scene. It was only natural, I expect; situations
like mine always tend to attract a mindless feeding frenzy of law
enforcement and media attention. Nothing can stop one of these
avalanches of hype but a spectacular death or some other apocalyptic
resolution to the problem, and even then the jackals feed on the
bits and scraps for years, writing instant books and made-for-TV
miniseries projects, one after another rehashing the obvious.
How had it come to this, anyway? What was I really doing there,
pinned like a butterfly in the intersecting beams of hot spotlights,
in the center of a whirl of activity that would not stop until I
was dead, vanished, or dissected to bits by the hungry wolves of
I'm an engineer.
I'm not a very good engineer, actually, but I get by. I know enough
about the job I do to keep myself on the payroll, and I sometimes
entertain the fantasy that I could have been a really GREAT engineer
if I had made some different choices and gotten some different breaks,
but most days I just show up for work, get the job done, and go home.
Funny how your life in retrospect seems like a solid structure, with
events and circumstances fitting together so tightly that you can't
wedge a sliver of uncertainty or finger of doubt between them. Looking
at life from the other end, you can remember when your future was
a swirl of possibilities, terrifying in its complexity and its sheer
number of choices and options. How does your life change from the
swirling chaos of alternate futures to the unforgiving brickwork
of history? One choice, one event at a time, cementing themselves
in place as the clock ticks inexorably forward.
Sometimes I'm possessed by fantasies of saving the world and creating
wonderful inventions of every sort, and I spend my time in a sort
of blissed-out haze, floating a few inches above the pavement
everywhere I go. Other days, I am convinced that I'm a middle-aged,
pot-bellied individual who is mediocre in virtually every respect,
and I can almost hear the Grim Reaper's clock ticking off the
remaining seconds in my middle-class, pedestrian, totally
undistinguished life. Those days pass with agonizing slowness.
Most of the time, I perform a delicate balancing act, keeping part
of my brain numb to the idea of advancing age and my life's lack
of purpose while setting up small goals for myself so that I
can feel good about accomplishing them.
Don't frown at that lifestyle; you'd be amazed (or more likely
shocked, perhaps a bit sad) to learn how many people in this
world know exactly what I'm talking about. If you make your
goals too large or grand, it takes you too long to accomplish
them and it's almost impossible to maintain any level of
excitement about working toward the goal. Make your goals too
small, and the emotional high you get when the goal is reached
is not enough to carry you through the emotional trough that
always follows even the most minor accomplishment. Throughout
the whole thing, you must always be on your guard, maintaining
a steady focus on the here and now to avoid thinking thoughts
about eternity past, eternity future, what life was like when
you were younger (ten years or ten minutes ago, take your pick),
or what the next ten years has in store for you.
So, anyway, I'm an engineer -- and a damn moody and bipolar one
at that, it seems. Not quite manic, not really depressive, just
in some sort of quietly desperate grey-flannel no-man's-land
in between. Definitely not the sort of person you'd expect to
see on the nightly news.
So why am I here now?
During one of my 'inventor' moods, I actually discovered something.
It's not a cure for the common cold, an inexhaustible power source,
or anything quite so dramatic, but as far as I can tell I was the
first one to happen across it. I guess that makes it my discovery.
I'm not going to explain it here in any detail, because that would
defeat the purpose (the only remaining purpose) of my whole life.
Reading these lines, rearranging the letters in the words, and
applying your whole repertiore of cabalistic cryptographic cunning
will do you no good at all; the secret of the bubble is safe in
my head. If you want to know how it works, go out and discover the
principles for yourself, good luck to you, and be damned.
Anyway, what I found was the guiding principle that makes the
bubble possible. It's really not all that complicated (yes,
indeed, I am taunting you a little bit -- so sue me), and it can
be used to design a small piece of hardware that generates the bubble
and maintains it for an awfully long time on a startlingly small
power source. Sort of a Rube Goldberg or Buck Rogers gizmo, and
I don't have to prove to you that it works; just review your
tapes of the recent media coverage to see what it's like. There
seems to be no end of scientific experts on important-looking
panel discussions whose sole job these days consists of serious
speculation on the bubble, what it's made of, how it works,
and so on. Wait a few months, and you can read the books on
it. Wait a bit longer, and you can watch the television show.
Sit there on the couch, beer in one hand and remote control in
the other, and puzzle yourself silly trying to figure it all
out. Just remember -- don't let yourself get so engrossed in
the analysis that you miss the lottery drawing or the latest
episode of your favorite soap operas.
After I made the discovery, I very nearly lost it again. I was
so shocked by the possibilities involved that I immediately
went into a sort of psychic shock; I could not bear to face
the fact that I had a set of ideas in my possession that could
change my life dramatically. I've told you that I spend a lot
of effort on maintaining a sort of emotional status quo,
avoiding manic excitement as well as incapacitating depression
by steering a middle course. When the principles that led to
the creation of the bubble entered my brain, I walled off
that part of my mind as if it contained a horrifying threat
to my sanity (which, in a very real sense, it did).
I avoided thinking about the bubble for at least three months,
going about my usual bland existence with no outward sign
whatsoever of the explosive knowledge in my head. Looking
back, I think it might have been better for me if I had
actually managed to forget the whole thing. Sitting here
watching the news helicopters circle overhead, I'm inclined
to think that I would be definitely better off without the
Knowledge is an insidious, sneaky thing, however, and even
though I made every conscious effort to divert my thoughts
to other areas my subconscious kept pecking away at the
problem. When I found myself doodling the same circuit
diagram over and over during staff meetings at work, I
finally gave in and decided to build a prototype. This
was a major step for me; although I was pretty well convinced
the damn thing would never work (and would thus depress me
terribly), I had to get it out of my system.
I drew the diagrams, fiddled with the concepts, and refined
the idea over a period of a couple of weeks. Like I said,
the concepts are not dauntingly complicated or esoteric;
it didn't take long to come up with a plan for testing
the theory. Better engineers than I could most likely
come up with much more elegant solutions to the problem
of constructing the device, but for whatever reason, you're
stuck with me. I gathered the materials for another month
or so; I was not really in all that big a hurry. I was
able to lose myself in the minutinae of ordering parts
and designing the device, and thus was able to settle my
mind into a routine and avoid thinking about the larger
implications of what I was doing.
The device took shape in my basement workshop, piece by
piece, and as I completed the various subsystems I was
able to test them against the various parts of the theory.
To my surprise, everything checked out; there were a few
false starts and mistakes, but I took my time figuring
out the problems and fixing them. I puttered along, making
notes and listening to the radio while I added one piece
after another, and finally the thing was done.
I had a pretty good idea what to expect from the device,
but I was not about to risk my life or property to find
out if my predictions were correct. I tested the device's
systems several times, one after another, to make sure
they performed according to plan, but I was reluctant
to plug everything together and throw the final switch.